BBAs Take Historic Study Abroad Trip to Cuba
Since the United States embargo of Cuba in 1960, study of the communist country’s economy has been almost impossible for U.S. business schools—until this year.
In Spring 2015, Randy Dunham, chair of international business at the Wisconsin School of Business, led the first truly immersive learning experience for undergraduate students from the U.S. to Cuba—offering Badgers firsthand experience with the culture, history, politics, and economics of a nation poised to undergo drastic change.
Dunham wanted to create an integrated field study seminar with extensive preparation, opportunities for reflection, and the chance for students to tailor the learning to their interests.
“I wanted to deliver a premium learning experience, the kind that changes students’ lives,” Dunham says. “I wanted students to walk away from this course believing that they can have global careers, believing that they can be leaders, and to be inspired about learning who they are and what they can be.”
Preparing to study abroad
The weekly three-hour seminar sessions included students from across campus with majors in business, biology, sociology, Spanish, and nursing. Before traveling abroad, Dunham led group discussions, encouraged students to bring interesting articles to online discussions, and orchestrated team projects.
Each student had the opportunity to study specific aspects of Cuba and then present what they learned, which gave the class a well-rounded understanding of the country before the trip.
David Urintsev (BBA ’15), who majored in international business, marketing, and management and human resources, was keenly interested in Cuba for both personal and professional reasons. “My family left Moscow to escape some of the same things that Cuba is currently experiencing, and this field experience offered me a great opportunity to see what I’ve heard so much about.”
Devin Skolnick (BBA ’15) wanted to broaden her global business knowledge by studying consumers in another culture. “You really have to understand consumers are not all the same in different nations,” she says. “One tactic may work in one country but not another.”
A historic study abroad experience
Dunham collaborated with partners across campus and around the globe to organize the trip, including colleagues at other schools who took students to Cuba; faculty in the UW–Madison Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies Program; travel service providers; members of the Madison-Camuguey Sister City Association; and people involved in the Wisconsin Medical Project, which sends medical supplies and equipment to Cuba.
When they finally arrived in Cuba during spring break, students had unprecedented access to top government officials, industry leaders, academics, and an emerging entrepreneurial community.
They toured tobacco, sugar, and rum production facilities and met with company leaders. They learned about the dual currency system and what can be purchased with Cuban pesos versus convertible pesos from one of the people who helped create the system, José Luis Rodríguez García, Cuba’s former minister of economy and planning. They toured a ration store to see firsthand how Cubans purchase food. They learned about the world-renowned Cuban health care system, which excels in preventive care. They met with small business owners to understand how the owners operate within the constraints of the communist system.
Applying the valuable lessons learned
To help organize the incredible amount of information they took in during a short time, each student kept a journal to reflect on their learning before, during, and after the field experience. Students also followed up with a three-hour session to help integrate the in-class and experiential learning.
“You can read as much as you can about a place, but I don’t think you really know and understand what it’s like until you go and experience it,” says Alex Brown (B.S. ’16), a UW–Madison biology major pursuing a certificate in entrepreneurship at the School. “I came to appreciate the things that changed in Cuba after the revolution, especially the health care system. Despite being a poor and developing nation, Cuba has a better life expectancy and infant mortality rate than the United States.”
Skolnick says the experience opened her mind to the possibility of working in another country and has given her a new perspective on global business. “The biggest takeaway for me is to remember to be open minded about how different societies are.”
For Urintsev, the firsthand knowledge he got from the trip has proven invaluable to his current work with an international business consulting firm. “I’ve been trying to come up with a strategy for what it would take for a company to enter and succeed in the Cuban market,” he says. “Seeing the kinds of opportunities there are in Cuba today was one of the most interesting and relevant parts of the course.”